Cleaning out the Attic

messy room
This is my brain. Not pretty.

I’m having a confused morning.

What the shuffling seems to have done is left a mess in my head. And I can tolerate a mess, but I don’t like it. I like things to be neat, orderly, tidy, arranged. Mess is supposed to be a temporary state, something you make while you are trying to make something else.

It’s what happens when you decide it’s time to organize the basement or the closets or the garage and everything gets taken out and examined, and usually what happens is there’s this really ugly stage where everything is out and you’re looking at it. Some things seem to go in piles. They belong together. So you do that. And many things are just lying there, because you’re not sure what they go with and and anyway you don’t know if they would fit if you put them with things they might go with. So they just sit there.

There are other things, of course, that need to be thrown out. This might mean that you have a pile of things to throw away, and a pile of things to give to charity, and another–often larger pile–of things you aren’t sure about. Should you keep them? You don’t know. So they just sit there too.

That’s what I seem to have done.

I have dragged out everything I know about myself, other people, the mind, and what I should do to get better, and it’s in piles. And that’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten. And it’s a mess.

It’s also not getting appreciably better. I might have tidied up a few corners. And a part of me thinks for no discernible reason, “Oh, I just need more stuff.” And I go off and read something, and the piles get bigger. Then I have more to organize.

Bonobos tongue kiss.
Bonobos tongue kiss.

So, for example, yesterday I was reading about chimpanzees. I now have a number of bits of trivia to share with you: they kiss on the mouth, but only some groups of chimpanzees do this. They groom each other after conflicts to re-establish relationships, but they also use mediators for this. Sometimes things are just too painful, and they need help getting started picking bits of debris out of each other’s fur. And they have culture.

How exactly does this help me?

I don’t know.  But that seems to be what I do. If I can’t organize the mess in my head, I go out and find more things to put up there with all the rest of the crap. It’s like I think Google Books is a Container Store. All I need is the right sized plastic bins and all will be well. Only I keep buying things that don’t turn out to be more containers, or the containers keep turning out to be the wrong size. I just end up with more stuff to organize. It’s horrible. Someone should make me stop.

Of course, the other reason to watch Voyager is that Jeri Ryan is hot.
Of course, the other reason to watch Voyager is that Jeri Ryan is hot.

I’ve just finished watching 13 years of Midsomer Murders. (That thought alone is a bit frightening.) It’s not that I was such a great fan, but I’d run out of other things to watch that involve figuring out how a dead body got to be dead. And now I can’t find much of anything to replace it with. And so I’ve moved on to Star Trek.

I watched Star Trek Voyager for four hours yesterday. In a row. There should be laws against that. I’m not sure if that kind of thing is safe.

Nonetheless, there was a point somewhere in the middle where I felt really pretty happy doing this. I felt, in fact, like I was about five years old and being read a nice story. And then that feeling subsided, but I kept doing it. I kept watching this silly old TV show.

I suppose I was hoping I could get that feeling would come back. It didn’t.

starbucksWhat it made me realize is–hold on, this is pretty earth-shattering–I like stories. I don’t know why I do, but I do. Stories make me happy. They make me very happy.

And so does organizing my brain.

I realized something else: doing things I enjoy makes me feel valued. And that’s really the reason to do it–not to unwind or relax or bring a bit of joy into my life, although those are good reasons to do them as well, but to work against the pain of the Paper Cup self and to send that message to myself loud and clear that I matter.

Sometimes for four hours.


More about the Paper Cup

Theirs wasn't a Starbucks cup.
Theirs wasn’t a Starbucks cup.

The Paper Cup self is an important idea for me. It’s my evidence, really, that what was done to me was wrong. More than the fear or the physical pain or confusion of what was actually done to me, it says to me this should never have been allowed to happen. The level of hurt is just so deep.

Because that’s my ethic. It’s the whole structure and content of my moral system: You don’t hurt things. You don’t hurt things just because you like doing the thing that is hurting others or because it’s lucrative, exciting, or fun. You don’t hurt things on purpose and you don’t hurt things just because they’ve gotten in the way of your good time.

Now, sometimes there’s a bigger picture, and you end up causing some temporary pain because it has a longer term benefit. I got a flu shot last week. It hurt. I don’t like needles–they scare me–and flu shots hurt a little. But having the flu hurts more, so I got one. And not long ago when my cat wasn’t feeling well and spent most of her time sleeping and not eating or drinking, I syringe-fed her a mixture of water and cat food to get her hydrated again. She didn’t like this. In fact, she growled at me pretty much the whole time. But I knew she had a hell of a headache and ached all over, and with a little water in her system, that would go away. Big picture.

The whole system was just wrong.
The whole system was just wrong.

Making these kinds of “a little hurt now for a lot less hurt in the future” decisions is tricky, because we don’t always know what the future might look like, and sometimes our idea of a “little less hurt now for a lot less hurt in the future” is wrong. I’m thinking here of things like Spanish colonization of the Americas and the enslavement and forced conversation of native peoples. That was just not a good call.

To give a different example, grounding your kid because he didn’t do his homework and lied to you about it might be in his best interest even if he thinks his whole life is over because he can’t play on the computer for a while. Life with a high school diploma and some study habits does seem to work out better for most people, and a few computer games less might help inspire him in that direction. But beating him until he bleeds? Well, no. That’s a lot of hurt now for more hurt later, even if he does end up graduating.

So when I mention a bigger picture, I don’t want anyone to get carried away, or start imagining there is a bigger picture to justify things when there isn’t.

The Paper Cup self hurts me. It has hurt me for a long time. Aside from whatever long-term nastiness it might have led to in my life–and it probably has–it just hurts. It hurt me then and it hurts now. It hurts in a way that nothing else does.

If you’ve ever been treated as a disposable person with no feelings and no rights and no value, then you know what I mean. But if you haven’t, then I’m sorry I can’t describe it to you. It is worse than any loss, any bad break-up, any single moment of humiliation. It may actually be the single worst thing you can feel.

And that was wrong.

I suppose what I’m trying to distinguish between here is different kinds of concern we might have, based on what we are dealing with. I have objects in my life that I value. They’re very useful to me, and I try to take care of them because either I like them or I need them. I avoid doing things that might damage them because it wouldn’t be in my best interest to do that.

Even my cat understands this, and she has a tiny head and tiny brain. When I am on her last nerve, she bites me. But it doesn't hurt.
Even my cat understands this, and she has a tiny head and tiny brain. When I am on her last nerve, she bites me. But it doesn’t hurt.

But I try not to harm living, sentient creatures because it causes them pain and distress. You don’t have to be useful to me to get that. I don’t need to like you either. In fact, you could be jumping up and down on my absolute last nerve left in the world and I still would not want to cause you distress or pain. I would want you to get off my last nerve, but I wouldn’t want to hurt you. That’s just my personal standard for behavior. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable standard to hold everyone else to, and generally I do.

I know sometimes we get angry when we ourselves are in pain and lash out at those we love most. That’s not anything to be proud of, but the occasional lapse can be forgiven.

Having no concern for pain that you are causing can’t.

The Paper Cup Self

Theirs wasn't a Starbucks cup.
Theirs wasn’t a Starbucks cup.

I didn’t sleep well last night. I woke up in the night and again early in the morning–before the sun was up–feeling cranky and restless and out of sorts. I felt about seven years old, like a cranky seven-year-old.

I have no idea why.

Being me is a constant surprise and a mystery, even if it isn’t always fun.

I’m thinking more about the paper-cup self and my fears about acknowledging it.

We tend to assume that we think we are who we are because we are that person, but that’s not true. There are many reasons we form a view of ourselves–how we behave and how others behave towards us is a large part of that.

If your behavior is a natural outgrowth of how you feel and what your temperament is, then your view of yourself will tend to have something to do with what’s going on inside you and all will be well. But if what you are doing has nothing to do with what’s going on inside–if you feel frightened, or disgusted, or ashamed of what you are doing then it all gets a bit confusing. Your view of yourself won’t match your internal experience.

And that’s what happens during a lot of abuse. It’s one of the reasons it is abuse, in fact. It messes with your head.

I mentioned that behavior communicates shared meanings. Both the perpetrator and the victim usually agree on what behaviors communicate degradation and powerlessness, and so their interaction creates a message that they can both read. What that makes me realize now is that, when I was a child, the perpetrators and I had shared meanings for behavior.

glishI wasn’t dealing with the Glish. “Tasting” wasn’t a simple greeting among friends.

I’m not up to explaining this in detail today, so I hope that what I am writing makes sense. But what I am getting at is that they knew about the paper cup self. When they treated me as disposable object without rights, when they degraded and shamed me, they knew what they were doing to me. It may have been intentional, or it may have been a by-product of something else they were trying to accomplish, but they knew.

What we disagreed about was my right to find it distressing and to object to it.

More Shuffling

shuffle-cardsI’m still shuffling the deck.

I’ll tell you what came up next–not an ace, I’ll tell you that.

But I want to start with Cooley, so that you understand what I mean, and also with the idea that the self is something that we imagine. It doesn’t really exist. The self is a model we create in our mind that allows us to make predictions about ourselves and others, to make decisions, and to interact. It’s a very cool thing, and I’m guessing a fairly recent thing, since apparently hominids have only been able to think about the future for three million years (where that number comes from, I have no idea.)

And a self seems useful mainly for thinking about the future and what we might do in it, but maybe I’m wrong. Chimpanzees evidently have developed theory of mind, and that sort of leaves the door open.

But keep in mind that, regardless of what the ability to think about a self developed for or even whether it was three million years ago or longer, it would before modern humans appeared n the scene (and before chimps as well).

We are only 200,000 years old.  But australopithecus would have been around and so would have paranthropus. Maybe they

We still don't know if this is a species, or just someone with a genetic disease.
We’re related to H. Floresiensis, but they had brains the size of chimps. They built fires though. They were probably smart enough to have a self-image.

started this trend. I don’t know, but I’m afraid I have wandered off the point.

Charles Horton Cooley says we develop our sense of self, at least in part, because we see ourselves as we imagine others see us. This is called the looking-glass self, because in this idea, the minds of others are acting like mirrors for us to see ourselves in.

We know–or can guess-how others see us, because of how people behave towards us mainly, and to a lesser extent based on what they say. (We usually believe behavior over words.) Behavior has meaning and within a culture, meanings are usually shared.  (Across cultures, it often isn’t, which is why people experience culture shock. The real problem is usually self-shock: differences in meanings ascribed to behavior creates a conflict about how to see oneself.)

This process occurs outside of awareness and outside of intentional control.

When we are routinely abused by others, we develop negative views of ourselves, because the view of us being communicated in abusive behavior is that we are worthless, bad, or unworthy of consideration and regard. No one communicates care or respect by slapping someone else around or looking contemptuous. It just isn’t done.

So sometimes, when I feel like a used paper cup, I know why. It has to do with how various perpetrators saw me, and the view they communicated to me through their behavior. I think it’s a completely accurate view of what they thought about me.

Theirs wasn't a Starbucks cup.
Theirs wasn’t a Starbucks cup.

It’s hard to stay with that view though. It’s painful. I don’t really want to think about it or engage with it. It’s one of those things you want to put aside and move on from without considering too carefully.

But if I stay with it, I start to see a bit beyond it. I start to see how I saw myself. I don’t really know how I see my child-self now, but I think I can recall how I saw myself then. Maybe.

I was cute.

I don’t know how else to say it. I was really, really cute.

And that just makes me very sad.

It also reminds me of how I saw the men who used me, and it is like fire raining down. They were just evil. And I feel sad about that too. It also hurts my head. The horror is so terribly intense.

Shuffling the Deck

They could imagine the future 3 million years ago. (H. Sapiens have been around for 200,000 years.) Were they pattern seekers also?
They could imagine the future 3 million years ago. (H. Sapiens have been around for 200,000 years.) Were they pattern seekers also?

I’ve been really wrestling with some ideas the last few days, and I think I understand why at last.

This is about integration. It’s about one big, last push in that direction before I do something so monumental and distracting, really, that I probably won’t have time for much more of pushing for a while.

And I’ve probably run out of time for this also. In a matter of hours, it is most likely time to get back to the important business of packing up and moving and making sure I have all the right documents.

(No, I’m not stressed…)

So, I’ll tell you first what this is all about.

First, you need to know I have parts. If you’ve been around for a while, you know that, but not everyone has, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. I am not a leaving-out-kind-of-person. I am an include-everyone-kind-of-person, even the kid who picks his nose and the other kid who is really mean and makes fun of everyone. He’s probably just having a bad childhood, and maybe we can gently teach him not to do that.

So, parts. Not full-blow alters. I don’t have DID. I suppose this could be DDNOs (dissociative disorder not otherwise specified), but who knows? I haven’t been properly diagnosed, and it hasn’t seemed necessary to pursue that.

The parts are all a bit fuzzy now. They used to be very clearly defined and distinct and seemed to have particular roles. That is no longer the case. I am not really sure where one begins and another ends anymore and I’ve stopped addressing anyone by name because I don’t really know who is who. But I do seem to view things from very different perspectives at different times still. Which I presume means they continue to live on.

Let me tell you first of all my personal theory about parts. I do not believe they are fundamentally about denial or avoidance. I think they are about order. I think human beings like order and patterns and predictability. We also prefer unity, so we tend to see things in unifying, holistic ways.

So if I need to behave radically different on different occasions or with different people, that might be confusing. Or, if some people seem to behave in completely opposite ways from other people, that’s confusing too. Or, the same person behaves radically different on different occasions, that will be confusing as well–and I mean extremes here. We can handle someone who yells sometimes and hugs us at others. We can’t handle someone who chases us around with knives sometimes and then later bakes a cake and has a tea party (i.e.–my mother.)

Parts are a way of organizing all of that confusion. It’s a way of creating unified, coherent, consistent views of people and  the self out of a chaotic, fragmented mess. We don’t set about doing this on purpose or because it makes us feel better. That is just what we’re born to do, so we do it. Kind of like a dog licking its genitals. That’s just what dogs do. And what we do–some of us better than others–is recognize patterns.

Gratuitous picture of a reconstruction of the head of "Selam," a year-old Australopithecus Afarensis. Just because that's fun to think about.
Gratuitous picture of a reconstruction of the head of “Selam,” a year-old Australopithecus Afarensis. Just because that’s fun to think about.

Parts are groups of beliefs, behaviors, feelings preferences, personality traits, and experiences that form a pattern and seem to go together. And because we are imaginative creatures, these groups sometimes have backstories and suitable physical appearances.

But they are there mainly because it does not seem possible for everything in our heads to be true at one time. And the only way to go on functioning is to live with it all only one chunk at a time.

For example, I have a part that is emotionally unexpressive,  stoic, believes in an ethic of toughness, courage, and independence. It wears a lot of brown and gray. And likes coffee. It doesn’t exactly have a gender, but seems to identify with some core elements of what we think of as masculinity.

And that is why my earlier post on approval was so important, because this part is not a people-pleaser, and yet it’s clearly oriented towards living up to my father’s rather frightening ideals.

Being stoic was a fairly effective approach with my dad.

It makes me realize, in fact, that I got a lot from him that I couldn’t get from my mother. Attention, for one, and to some extent some positive regard. My dad talked to me. He asked my opinions about things. I could have an intelligent, civil conversation with him. And there were certain things about me that my dad actually seemed to like: I think he liked that I could make things, that I was handy with tools to some extent, and that I thought about things. My dad is nothing really but a con artist, so it’s hard to know if that was what he truly felt, or if it was just an act he did in hopes of getting me to iron his shirts or make him a sandwich. (I did iron his shirts. I usually refused to make sandwiches).

In contrast, my mother was never happy about anything. There was no pleasing her. She hated everything about me, unless she was in the mood to like me and that was an entirely unpredictable occurrence.  She especially hated talking to me. I think I made her feel crazy. Avoidance was really the best strategy for handling her–that and not attracting attention.

It’s really wrenching to look back on that, because I didn’t entirely give up, and I remember these painful conversations that very quickly devolved into heated arguments where I was really just trying to get her to think logically enough about something so that we could both occupy the same universe and she could understand what I was trying to say.

But it really is horrifying to consider that your psychopathic, sadistically cruel parent was actually the more likely source for getting some of your developmental needs met.

I can tell you, that isn’t pleasant to consider. Not pleasant at all.

It’s horrible, really.

shuffle-cardsBut none of that was supposed to be the point of this post. The point of it was really that because I have been different parts at different times, different parts actually know different things–about life, about our minds, and about myself. They have made different observations, read different books, and talked to different people.

Part of being a single person is knowing all of that at once.

It feels to me like shuffling cards, interlacing all of these little facts, these little ideas, intermingling them. But then, unlike cards, trying to see if there’s a larger picture, a bigger pattern.

And I’ll tell you what I’ve worked out about it this morning: there’s a lot we just don’t know.

Got Approval?

Really, he's looking for approval.
Really, he’s looking for approval.

I’m thinking about approval-seeking this morning, mainly because it’s one of those things I can’t relate to and I wonder if I’m missing out on something.

I don’t expect approval. I don’t look for it. I don’t always notice it when it is offered.

And I’m beginning to think that that’s one way of getting it.

We internalize the expectations of our parents and important others as children, generalize them, and turn them into expected standards of behavior. I was raised in a cult that made it quite clear that worrying what anyone thought about me or my choices was an indication of a character flaw. They told me to be a Daniel and dare to stand alone. They told me to have a purpose true.

I took it too far and stopped caring what they thought either, but I’m sure that wasn’t part of the plan.

My dad helped too. I’m sure I’ve let him down in the worst possible way because I didn’t grow up to be a felon. But I’ve done my best to be tough, to try not to let too many feelings show, and to not care what anyone thinks. I’m sure I’ve done that to please him. Even though I never intend to see him again. He lives on in my head.

People do that–keep living on in your head.

Women complain most often that they find themselves sacrificing too much–not voicing opinions, not asserting preferences, catering too much to someone else’s desires–in order to gain approval.

Of course, what they really want is dinner, but you’ll notice how they’re doing it.

But I suspect that it’s just a matter of what they were raised to believe would gain them approval. When men stand up for themselves, assert their rights, try to be forceful, fail to show emotions and are generally irritating and insensitive to women, they are looking for approval as well–not from the person they are interacting with, but the invisible father or coach or alpha boy in their second-grade class that they now carry around in their heads as a model of how to be. Because those behaviors are every bit as much what was expected of them by someone important when they were little boys as submission and deference to others is expected of little girls.

It isn’t just women who want approval. We all want it. Even I do. But I was taught to get it by not giving a damn. I know that sounds strange, but if you’ve been around for a while, you’ll know that the way I was raised was strange.

So how do you stop seeking approval? I don’t think you can. I think that’s a little like trying to stop breathing air or drinking water. It’s just what we do.

Look at your dog. Your dog wants approval. Looking for approval is what intelligent social animals do. (Locusts are gregarious, but I’m not sure they take it quite that far.) It helps us get along and it helps us learn culturally acquired skills and knowledge that allow us to be successful in the world and among other people

What you need, and I need, is not to stop seeking approval, but to find people–real and imagined–who can give it to us, and who can give it to us for being our best selves rather than our worst ones.


The Do-Over

In the King James version of the Bible, which I grew up reading, the word for oryx is translated as "unicorn." So I believe in oryxes. Unicorns I'm still not sure about.
In the King James version of the Bible, which I grew up reading, the word for oryx is translated as “unicorn.” So I believe in oryxes. Unicorns I’m still not sure about.

I just read this fantastic post from Michelle at Play and have discovered that every day is a do-over.

Now this may be a seductive fantasy.

A part of my test for any new idea involves how much logical sense it makes versus how much it activates my emotions. If my emotional reaction is greater than the beautiful foundation of logic beneath it, then it’s probably nothing more than a new kind of snake oil.

And this one is a hard call, because I just really like the idea so much.

But the second test is how much harm the snake oil will do if I put it on. There’s nothing wrong with snake oil if you don’t break out in a rash after applying it. Especially if the snake oil was free.

I can believe in unicorns, God, heaven, aliens, ghosts, spirit vehicles, shapeshifters, poltergeist, ESP, and dragons–whatever I feel like–even when there is no evidence for any of it. So long as it doesn’t hurt me.

So what harm will it do if I look at every day as a do-over?

Well, a lot, actually, if I decide that the consequences of yesterday’s decisions have evaporated overnight, or if I decide that my decisions now don’t need to be thought through because I’ll get a do-over tomorrow. I suspect some people do that. It’s probably why we are in so many of the messes we are currently in.

But aside from that nothing. The idea of every day as a do-over won’t do me any harm whatsoever. I’ll just wake up excited at the possibilities the day holds–each and every day.

Michelle, can I get some of that? Because I think it’s some good stuff you’ve got there.